It would seem that just as some people are confused about the meaning of marriage, so it follows that some people are now confused about the meaning of family. Consequently, it seems like a good time to think about the obvious beauty and the importance of our family with insights from a man who was a world-class personalist phenomenologist philosopher, a man who lost his mother and father early in his life, this is Karol Wojtyla, the late pope John Paul II. In a book on the early lectures of Wojtyla, there is an important essay entitled “The Family as a Community of Persons” where he emphasizes the notion that if we want to really understand what the family actually is, we must first understand what it means to be a person, and secondly, what the true meaning of marriage is, and only then, will we appreciate the extraordinary beauty of this highly complex “communio personarum,” this community of persons, that we simply call, “family.”
What does Karol Wojtyla say that a person is? Firstly, he wrote extensively on the person, (even an entire philosophical treatise on the person in the book The Acting Person). However, in the book Karol Wojtyla: Person and Community Selected Essays (Trans. Theresa Sandok, OSM. Peter Lang Publishing: NY. 2008) Wojtyla says the anthropology of the person “is characterized by this fundamental truth about the human being, a truth we find in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis–the truth concerning the human being’s likeness to God. This likeness is based not only on having a rational and free nature…but also on being a person, a personal being.”(p. 317) This personal being, the human being, or “the person” Wojtyla calls “autoteleological,” meaning one who seeks to achieve self-fulfillment, self-possession and self-governance, all of which are proper to the person.(p.321) The freedom to live out one’s destiny as a complete person is fundamental to our human nature, which is why human rights, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom are inalienable rights. He says, “the human being is a being capable of existing and acting ‘for itself’…determining its own ends but also of becoming and end for itself…In a certain sense, every human being is a “world”–a microcosm–unto himself or herself…”(p.317) What does all of this mean? Well, since the person can seek out her own goals and meaning in her own life, she does so socially, in the context of the existence of other persons. So, there is an essential link between the individual person’s Self-fulfillment in relationship to the Other’s self-fulfillment and personhood. Wojtyla says, that “In interhuman relationships, therefore, the disinterested gift of self (of the person) stands at the basis of the whole order of love and the whole authenticity of love.” (p. 322) Authentic personhood intimately involves “the gift of self,” the self-donation of one’s time, talents, skills, et cetera, even one’s own person (such as, in martyrdom) and it is this “gift of self,” or self-sacrifice that gives meaning to one’s own life as an individual person and meaning to others lives as well. By contrast, the selfish person not only chooses to disassociate himself from others, but also others often react in revulsion away from this impersonal, unnatural disposition of that person. Wojtyla says the Other also has to be generous in receiving the gift of others, “In every case, however, if this disinterested gift of self is to be a gift and is to be realized as a gift in an interpersonal relationship or many such relationships, the nature of a community of persons demands that this gift be not only given but also received in the whole of its truth and authenticity.”(p. 322) It takes generosity on the part of the receiver to receive another person’s gift and this is why the family is the best learning place, the “practice zone” for such a giving and receiving because everyone is appreciated for who they are as they are in the family. Family is different from practically all other social relationships in the world. It is in the family that there is this “safe zone,” an environment full of love and play, where we are free to express ourselves to the fullest, trying out new identities and ideas. Just as Jacques Maritain describes each person as a “universe unto himself” in his book The Person and the Common Good, we can think that indeed every family is a “universe” of its own as well, with all of the rules, rights and obligations it entails as specified by the parents. But family is founded upon marriage.
What About Marriage?
What does Wojtyla say about marriage? Wojtyla says, “The basis of the family is marriage. Marriage is not just a partnership but it is–and ought to be–a real communio personarum…[community of persons]”(p.323) In other words, marriage is the one social relationship where a man and a woman together strive to achieve this “gift of self” for the entirety of their lives. This selfless love for the Other is sustained and affirmed in marriage because the spouse is the one person who sees the entirety of the other spouse’s vocation and life in every act which gives rise to forgiveness, mercy, empathy and compassion. Wojtyla says, “This ‘gift of self’ lies at the basis of the marriage covenant, bringing to it the special dimension of love that we find in the concept of married love. The husband and the wife are mutually each other’s beloved when they enter into the marriage covenant, and this covenant-also a legal act–testifies that they have both made a mutual gift of themselves.”(p.323) Marriage is an eminently positive relationship between mature persons which is the perfect loving setting for inviting new persons, new life, family, into the world. Wojtyla says, “The mutual bestowal of themselves, the category of gift, was inscribed in the human existence of man and woman from the very beginning. The body belongs to this system, and so it falls within the category of gift and within the relationship of mutual bestowal–the body as an expression of a distinctiveness that is not just sexual but wholistic, and therefore personal as well. (p.326) Wojtyla, as a phenomenologist, emphasizes the importance of the reality of the body and that it is in and through the body that the totality of manifestations of the “gift of self” is lived. It follows that such a total self-giving of one’s entire body and therefore, one’s person, be directed only toward another person who can equally, though differently, complement this gift, receiving it totally and returning himself or herself totally, which he or she is free to do safely and confidently, without reservation or resentment, who is a spouse in marriage.
Family is the microcosm of society where the child is trained to appreciate the differences and the complementarity between the different genders from a loving mother and father, brothers and sisters. In the family, the child learns to treat Others as persons and she enters society ready to act with this respect, understanding, right and duty of selfless love due to persons as with oneself, between all men and women in the world, as learned in her own family. Wojtyla consoles us when there are imperfections in marriage and in society’s understanding of it, saying “Errors in realization, distortions in practice, do not dim the divine light, but allow it in some sense to shine forth even more brightly in human minds and consciences.” (p.315) A good marriage between a man and woman is noticeable by all, everyone perceives when a husband and wife joyfully interact with each other lovingly, caringly, thoughtfully, actively acting to achieve the ideal of selfless love, which is naturally something extremely attractive, even charming. Wojtyla calls the married to conquer evil with an abundance of good, recommending that all distortions of this divine good will be conquered by ordinary people living marriage heroically well. He says, “…spouses mutually give themselves to and accept each other in a manner proper to the marriage covenant, a manner that presupposes their difference in body and sex and, at the same time, their union in and through this difference…[and] the category of gift, however, has a key meaning here. Without it, there would be no way to properly understand and interpret either the marriage relationship as a whole or the acts of conjugal intercourse that are part of this relationship and have a strict causal connection to the emergence of the family.”(p.324) Marriage is the calling to live the “gift of self” in all things, body, mind and soul, for the sake of one’s beloved spouse, forgetting oneself but paradoxically, in doing so, achieving one’s own self-fulfillment in life. When married couples live the “gift of self,” open to life, God often gifts that couple with children, creating a new and even stronger bond between the spouses. Wojtyla says, “We all know that the family is based on procreation, that it is a community of persons connected in an active or passive way with the reality of human procreation as the elementary bond of this community. Procreation in the active sense occurs on the side of the parents, the spouses who transmit life to their children; procreation in the passive sense occurs on the side of the children, for they are born and thereby give new meaning to the marital bond itself; the marital bond then becomes a parental bond.”(p.324) When a married couple is open to new life in their marriage, they experience a more expansive love not only for each other, but materially manifested in the new life of a new person, a new child, a baby. Wojtyla says, “…the fact that the marital bond becomes– and properly ought to become–a parental bond has fundamental significance for the bring to light the true dimensions of this community of persons, this communio personarum, which must first be a marriage so that it might later also be a family.”(p. 325) In other words, mature persons understand the powerful meaning of conjugal love and desire to express their sincerity to each other, their families and society by first committing themselves before God in marriage, thus upholding the vital social contract that their future children will be taught to live the “gift of self” due to all persons, in spite of their differences, as modeled in their marriage. In this way, the “I” truly becomes a “We” and the “We” are strengthened anew through the parental bond with each child.
Community Life Depends Upon the Family
A community might appear to be a simple a social contract, a consent of the governed by the “general will” of the people or by any type of government structure over the governed. But, no matter what the political organization of any society, consistently throughout world history, it is that the family that is the most fundamental, the a priori basis of all other subsequent social units in society and political structures. Persons live first in families and the vast majority are born into a married household of a mother and father in all major civilizations throughout history. This is not a blind, strict, ignorant adherence to a cultural tradition from one the generation to the next but rather a concrete, personal affirmation that actively confirms the goodness of the value of marriage as an institution that teaches authentic personhood, wisely constituting the basis of all enduring civilizations. Wojtyla says that these “are objective laws, deeper than the whole somatic or emotional reality, laws that have their basis and justification in the very being and value of the person.” (p. 327) The child-person needs to personally witness, through the lifelong loving relationship of married parents, their interaction through good times and bad, as mother and father, as male and female, in order for him to envision with hope and with self-confidence in his own ability (and his future spouse’s ability) to succeed at living the “gift of self” in marriage and in family life. Wojtyla says that, “We know, too, that the marital bond is brought to fruition by parenthood… In this way, a child, children, come into the two-person community of a man and a woman. Marriage as a communio personarum is…not just in the biological or sociological sense, but precisely as a community with a truly communal character, a community that exists and acts on the basis of the bestowal of humanity and the mutual exchange of gifts.(p.327) The communal character of the family models the “order of love” due to all persons to be expressed not only in the family but with all others in society. Knowing the contingencies of communal life, war and peace, love and strife, one can always depend on the social affirmation that comes from one’s family who loves and values each person for whom he is, as he is, because he is, which is beautiful.